The State Health Department’s insistence that all virologic samples from the State suspected of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Corona virus (MERS-CoV) infection be sent only to the Manipal Centre for Virus Research (MCVR) in Karnataka has raised eyebrows in the scientific community.

The move has come as a surprise for many since Kerala already has two top-grade virology labs which are equipped for MERS testing. If they are utilised the delay in sending samples by train could be avoided and results obtained faster, within 12 hours. The labs here – the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Alappuzha unit, and the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB) – are accredited Grade I labs under Indian Council for Medical Research’s Virology Diagnostic Laboratories (VDL) Network, just like MCVR.

Amidst concerns that MERS could be imported into Kerala from Saudi Arabia through travellers, fast diagnosis of virologic samples are important for the management of the infection and for tracing possible contacts of patients. But all directives of the Health Department to district-level officers on MERS surveillance state that samples are to be sent to “MCVR, which is the designated reference lab”. RGCB had launched MERS surveillance last year itself. It has tested over 200 samples so far, mostly from private hospitals, utilising imported diagnostic kits in accordance with the WHO’s guidelines for lab testing for MERS.

A health official claimed that the department had no idea that the RGCB or NIV Alappuzha had MERS testing facilities. However, the minutes of meetings between the officials of both RGCB and the Health Department indicate that the information had been conveyed to the latter.

Officials of NIV Alappuzha unit said it had been communicated to the department and even discussed in meetings that the unit was equipped to do MERS testing. “We have had the MERS diagnostic kits for the past seven months, but not even a single sample from the State has reached us,” they said.